Leading the opposition against the SNP’s charismatic Alex Salmond wouldn’t have been an easy task for anyone, never mind a politician who had been collared for accepting an illegal donation within weeks of taking the job.
In the end Wendy Alexander – leader of the Scottish Labour party, and one of the few senior politicians in Britain whose poll ratings actually made Gordon Brown’s look good – fell on her sword.
Now the big question is, who wants to replace her at a time when they face the seeminly uphill struggle of going head to head with Alex Salmond and the apparently unbeatable SNP.
The current bookies’ favourite to take the top Labour job north of the border is Andy Kerr. He’s probably the best match for Salmond in terms of personality. Confident and forthright, the public services spokesperson is well-known, both as the former health minister who introduced Scotland’s smoking ban in 2006, and as one of the touted frontrunners in the leadership race last year, when Wendy Alexander was appointed.
Will his chances this year be scotched in the same fashion as they were last time around? Perhaps, since his failure to win the leadership was largely due to the fact that he didn’t stand – and as yet he’s shown no interest in this year’s race either.
Cathy Jamieson, on the other hand, has expressed an interest in running, and as the party’s Acting Leader – and deputy of seven years – she has the experience the job requires. She also has a reputation for fronting high profile campaigns, most famously her 2005 drive to ban Buckfast. This cheap, powerful “tonic wine” is a firm favourite among young Scottish drinkers, and often linked to anti-social behaviour. Ex-social worker Jamieson – along with colleagues including Kerr – moved to limit its sales. She was unsuccessful, however, and in the end only succeeded in getting free publicity for the cost-effective booze, and, if the firm’s distributor is to be believed, increased its sales.
Margaret Curran, MSP for Baillieston, is also considering standing as leader. Her constituency includes the deprived Easterhouse estate, which may be seen as a point in her favour – she’s described the troubled area as “the test ground for getting social policies right.” However, policy may be what trips this popular politician up; her reputation is more straight-talking than strategic, and as far as her leadership bid is concerned, she appears not to have given policy much thought as yet.
The most recent addition to the race is Charlie Gordon, MSP for Glasgow Cathcart and a strong supporter of Wendy Alexander’s bid for an early referendum on Scottish independence. More bizarrely, he’s also the man who obtained the £950 donation which proved to be Wendy’s downfall. Some would imagine this might be a barrier to success, but he seem unconcerned.
Of the other possible candidates, Iain Gray, MSP for East Lothian, is the most talked-about. When Wendy Alexander last resigned, in 2002, he took over her job, becoming the Scotland’s “minister for everything” (social justice, enterprise, transport and lifelong learning). As the party’s finance spokesman, one hopes he’d be able to avoid the money worries which afflicted Wendy, and he’s popular amongst the Scottish Executive. The years he’s spent as a special advisor to Alistair Darling at Westminster will probably work in his favour; his belief that his beloved football team Hibs are “the team of the decent working-class in Edinburgh” less likely to endear him to voters whose football allegiances lie elsewhere…
A few other names have been mentioned. They include Tom McCabe, former finance minister, MSP for Hamilton South and Wendy’s campaign manager last time round and Hugh Henry, MSP for Paisley South and whose past CV includes sleaze allegations and support of the alarmingly-named Marxist group Militant Tendency.
The leadership race is still in its earliest stages, and the timetable is still as uncertain as the list of candidates and most of the policies they’ll be running on. Labour members will watch with interest as the nuances of the competition unfold, but how others react remains to be seen: an SNP spokesperson has stated that the party is “not worried” who takes over from Wendy.